Legal professionals without a profession

Stephen Mayson says that the rise of MDPs is merely symptomatic of the increased fragmentation that could spell the end for the legal profession as a single, unified entity. Professor Stephen Mayson is a consultant on the strategic, structural and ownership issues of legal practice. He is director of the Centre for Law Firm Management at Nottingham Law School, and is the author of Making Sense of Law Firms, which is published by Blackstone Press. There was a time when only lawyers did what lawyers were trained to do. But now all sorts of other people do it, too licensed conveyancers, tax advisers, insurers, arbitrators, family mediators, advice centres, to name but a few. These others do not necessarily do the work in the same way; they do not necessarily get the same result; they do not necessarily charge in the same way or the same amount. But they do it.

There was a time when there was a legal profession. There isnt one profession any longer (even ignoring the age-old split between barristers and solicitors). These days, the law practised by the international mega firms is substantively and qualitatively different from that practised even by medium-sized commercial firms, let alone by smaller high street general practices or by, say, specialist personal injury firms. At its simplest, a profession can be defined as a group of people all certified as having proficiency in a body of knowledge (law, in our context), whose behaviour is regulated by a professional association (say, the Law Society).

The practice of law today still requires legal knowledge, but it also demands other parallel knowledge and skills, such as accounting, fund-raising, medicine, commercial know-how, industry and local insights. It is unrealistic to define what the body of knowledge now is that a lawyer must be certified as having. And it is certainly impossible for any one lawyer to know it all.

The needs of clients for legal services are now so diverse and complex that it makes little sense to pretend that a single, homogeneous profession can meet them, and that a single professional body can certify practitioners as competent and credibly regulate their performance. In some types of practice, lawyers will have more in common with doctors and other health professionals, or with accountants and bankers, than they will with other lawyers.

It is for these reasons that I believe multidisciplinary practices (MDPs) are inevitable. The boundaries of professional knowledge are now so fluid and so blurred that it is increasingly difficult to define what is legal, what is accounting, what is financial, what is banking, what is medical, and so on. Clients do not see their problems in these defined packages, either. They have problems that they want solved or resolved, opportunities that they want to take advantage of.

If they are sophisticated buyers, they might well unbundle their needs and choose horses-for-courses in different firms. Clients may not much care whether those who provide the advice are labelled lawyer, adviser or professional.

The world is not likely to become less complex, and the need for specialisation will not decline. It is therefore more likely than not that the need for co-ordinated multidisciplinary advice will continue to grow in volume and sophistication.

But lets not get carried away: this is not a universal client need, and MDPs are not a universal solution. Further, the need for multidisciplinary advice does not inevitably imply a need for MDPs. The responses of lawyers must reflect the needs of their clients. Some of these clients will want to reserve to themselves the right to select the best independent advisers for whatever issue they face. Some will seek and respect introductions from professionals that they already use. Some will go for the one-stop shop.

So let us not lose sight of reality. The idea of a legal profession may not be sustainable in the medium to long term. But there will continue to be a need for legal advice and so for legal practice. There is already a need for multidisciplinary advice, effectively delivered. But MDPs are not necessarily the only solution.

The question for the Government is how best to regulate professional activities if there is no profession to set and uphold standards. Who needs protecting from whom? The question for clients is whether they really want such an open market for professional services, perhaps with fewer safeguards than they have been used to.

But the strategic question for lawyers who wish to remain in legal practice is still the same: how best to deliver speedy, reliable, cost-effective advice with integrity and professionalism, without becoming one of the also-rans or poor relations of this multi-talented world?